Mithraism

MITHRAISM. The cult of Mithras, a Persian sun god, the worship of which reached Rome in or about a.d. 69, by the agency of the eastern legions who set up Vespasian as emperor. It is possible that the cult was known in the capital a century before, but it was the latter half of the first century of the Christian era that saw its strong dissemination in the West, and indeed its notable challenge to Christianity. Based on the trials, sufferings, and exploits of Mithras, the cult appealed to soldiers; and two shrines of Mithraism on Hadrian’s wall, one excavated in 1948 at Carrawburgh, and another still covered at Housesteads, reveal the popularity of Mithraism with the British legions. Professor Ian Richmond has established a sequence of destruction and rebuilding at Carrawburgh that he interprets as indicative of the practice of Mithraism or Christianity at local headquarters. The same shrine has a place of ordeal under the altar, for the initiate advanced through various grades by way of physical suffering and endurance. At that site archaeologists were able to establish the fact that chickens and geese were eaten at the ritual feasts and that pine cones provided aromatic altar fuel. December 25 was the chief feast of Mithras, and in fixing on that date for Christmas, the early church sought to overlay both the Mithraic festival and the Saturnalia. Christianity triumphed over Mithraism because of its written records of a historic Christ, and its associated body of doctrine adapted for preaching, evangelism, and the needs of every day. Christianity, too, was universal, excluding neither woman, child, nor slave. It preached salvation by faith and demanded no stern ordeals.——EMB


MITHRAISM, the cult of Mithras, a Persian sun-god, which reached Rome in or about a.d. 69, by the agency of the eastern legions who set up Vespasian as emperor (Tac. Hist. 3:24). It is possible that the cult was known in the capital a century before, but it was the latter half of the first century of the Christian era which saw its strong dessemination in the West, and indeed its notable challenge to Christianity. Based on its trials, sufferings, and exploits of Mithras, the cult appealed to soldiers; and two Mithraea on Hadrian’s wall, one excavated in 1948 at Carrawburgh, and another still covered at Housesteads, reveal the popularity of Mithraism with the British legions. Professor Ian Richmond has established a sequence of destruction and rebuilding at Carrawburgh, which he interprets as indicative of the practice of Mithraism or Christianity at local headquarters. The same shrine has a place of ordeal under the altar, for the initiate advanced through various grades by way of physical suffering and endurance. The archaeologists on the same site were able to establish the fact that chickens and geese were eaten at the ritual feasts, and that pine-cones provided aromatic altar fuel. December 25 was the chief feast of Mithras, and in fixing on that date for Christmas, the early Church sought to overlay both the Mithraic festival and the Saturnalia. Christianity triumphed over Mithraism because of its written records of a historic Christ, and its associated body of doctrine adapted for preaching, evangelism, and the needs of every day. Christianity, too, was universal, excluding neither woman, child, nor slave. It preached salvation by faith and demanded no stern ordeals.

See also

  • Mystery Religions